Jane Stewart picked her first flower when she was three, and she never stopped.
Her parents tended a massive garden, and she grew up hauling water from the lake for the plants, planting rows of crops, canning produce, and checking off the long list of chores that kept them fed.
Every once in awhile, her family would go into town and into the local flower shop, where Stewart would stare inside a huge cooler, looking at the buckets of flowers.
Today, she has that same cooler sitting in a corner of her flower shop, and she is picking flowers for her customers.
“I’ve picked my flowers my whole life, and I used to say that I would always have flowers on my table. And I have, my whole life,” said Stewart, who now owns Smith’s Flowers in downtown Hillsdale. “It’s just a thing, whether I had to pick them, grow them, even if they are dried. It just brings me so much joy. When I walk by my table, I reflect on it, and it makes me smile.”
Stewart’s career with growing things began when she turned 16 years old and started working for Pittsford resident Clare Monroe, helping him keep greenhouses. They made clippings of plants and even started their own breed of poinsettia, which they named the Red Emperor.
“He was a very even-keeled man. He knew how to work with the public and with children, being a schoolteacher,” Stewart said. “He was always in that teaching mode, so he was always teaching me something about the soil, the earth, how to grow things, the sun, the greenhouses, germination.”
After four years of working with plants, Stewart left Michigan and drifted around the country, exploring different industries and different places. She moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked as a pasta and cheese manager for Fresh Fields before switching to buying cheeses. Eventually, she ended up making organic goat cheese and living in a log cabin in the middle of the woods, which she describes as “the best time of my life.”
“I’m the sojourner type,” Stewart said. “I think life is interesting, and I think you should do more than one thing for sure. I’ve got four more years here at Smith’s Flowers, but then I’m going to go do something else. Maybe something with children.”
When the recession of 2008 hit, Steward was working with her brother’s engineering business. The recession rocked Michigan’s automotive industry, and her brother’s business was no exception.
“In the downturn of the economy, I needed something to do,” Stewart said. “So I had to think of something: Was I going to hold on, or try something new? And it was a good time to try something new.“
So she decided to buy Smith’s Flowers in downtown Hillsdale. The history of the shop intrigued her: Smith’s Flowers has been around since the late 1800s, and Stewart has learned all of its stories.
Today, eight years later, she says business is thriving. Just last weekend, her shop arranged flowers for four weddings, a high school homecoming, an anniversary, a fraternity event, and a class reunion.
On the average day, the backroom of her shop is filled with buckets of flowers, walls of vases, and spools of shining ribbons. The floor is strewn with leaves, and thick order forms are pinned to a board. Weekends are no break for Stewart, who spends the time labeling flowers, staggering buckets by recipe, and continually monitoring the flowers’ temperature.
She does have up to seven helpers, including Carmel Wright, 54, who has spent 32 years arranging flowers, six of them at Smith’s Flowers.
“I did lots and lots of jobs, but I couldn’t find what I was good at,” Wright said. “And this is it, my knack, this is what I love doing. And I’ve been doing it forever, and I love it.”
For Jessica Smith, 24, Stewart arranged blush-pink hydrangeas and roses for her wedding.
“I felt so comfortable, like I’d known her forever. She made it easy for me to tell her exactly what I wanted. I went there and said: ‘I want flowers. A lot of pink flowers.’ And she was like, ‘Ok,’” Smith said. “I didn’t really give her anything to go on, and she made it perfect.”
After Stewart finishes working at Smith’s Flowers, she is considering growing flowers for the industry. But in the meantime, she continues to be the face of Smith’s Flowers, selling teas, chocolates, and bouquets of flowers.
“My most favorite thing is when I deliver to people, and they open the door with a huge smile on their face,” Wright said. “That right there melts your heart because you know you’ve done something that has made other people happy. And even with funerals, you know when you see a tear that it is special to them.”